Christianity has a long and deep history in Africa, especially in Ethiopia where the religion was first introduced back in the first century A.D. This makes Ethiopia one of the first countries in the world to embrace the Christian religion. Because of this, there are many ancient and magnificent churches in Ethiopia. Of all the churches in Ethiopia, the most famous is The Church of St. Mary of Zion, which not only has impressively ancient roots but is also said to house the Ark of the Covenant.
In the fourth century, two Syrian monks led the King of Axum, Ethiopia to the Christian faith. The king is recognized as a saint in both the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches.
It was around this time, that the Church of St. Mary was first built in Axum. Axum was the first Christian kingdom in the world and the largest outside the Roman Empire. It was positioned on the caravan trade routes to Arabia, Nubia and Egypt. The church stood for hundreds of years before its destruction in the sixteenth century.
In 1635, St. Mary of Zion was reconstructed on the ruins of the church that had been destroyed by the Muslims, and it still stands today.
Although invaded many times by surrounding Islamic countries, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity regards itself as a fortress against Islam.
The seventeenth century rebuild of the church is a low, square structure surrounded by a colonnade, used by dancing priests during church services. It has fortress-like walls that reflect the past violence in the region and a remarkable interior of colorful murals and paintings. Foundation stones of the original fourth century St. Mary’s Church can still be seen on the site. The emperors of Ethiopia were all crowned here, and until 1930, criminals could receive sanctuary in the church by ringing the porch bell.
In 1955, the emperor built a new Church of St. Mary of Zion next to the old one. It was completed in 1964. Unlike the original St. Mary of Zion, the new St. Mary of Zion allows entrance to women.
The most notable curiosity of the church is that it claims to contain the original Ark of the Covenant. In 1965, a holy chapel was built next to Old St. Mary’s to house the revered artifact. The Ark was reportedly moved to the chapel adjacent to the old church because a divine heat from the Tablets was cracking the structure of the newly built church.
According to tradition, only the guardian monk may view the Ark per the biblical accounts of the dangers of doing so. The guardian monk is appointed for life by his predecessor before the predecessor dies. The guardian monk is confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life, praying before it and offering incense.
Many travel and tour companies offer tours of the Ethiopian churches in the region, including St. Mary’s. For more information, visit www.timelessethiopia.com/tours.